by Jude Tolar
France — where beauty resides in every village and field — is a favorite destination for me. I love traveling there and painting from life the beauty I see. How did my recent trip go? Find out here…
I had a recent autumn trip to France with a fellow American artist. We travelled from Paris to Provence by train, and rented a car. We spent 12 days in Provence, staying in La Ciotat (on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille) and St. Rémy-de-Provence. Some days we explored those two villages in great detail, where a two-block walk sometimes took an hour to complete. Side trips to Mouries, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Les Baux-de-Provence, and Goult offered additional beauty and culture.
I took my lightweight plein air gear for pastel painting with me and painted a baker’s dozen plein air pastel paintings in Provençal villages and in the countryside. I painted at various times of day: morning, afternoon, and at the golden hour before twilight.
Plein air painting abroad has taught me some things. I’ve learned to plan for limited storage space and beaucoup hauling of gear. I hand-carry my art bag through airports and into planes, trains, petite autos, equally petite rooms, and via many flights of stairs. I take only what I have to have: pastels (hard and soft) in a wide range of values and colors; pre-cut paper in one size only, 9 x 12 inches; a small and lightweight easel; pre-folded paper towels; zip-top freezer bags in various sizes; and a tracing pad for painting storage. For unforeseen emergencies: small amounts of duct tape, electrical tape, masking tape, plus rubber bands and bungee cords.
A few plein air highlights from this Provençal adventure:
- I found such a wealth of subject matter within a few miles — or within a few blocks — of each other. I painted vineyards, centuries-old doorways, and plane trees planted by Napoleon. I was smitten with an olive grove in a village and a tunnel of trees just outside of it.
- One morning I set up beside a road to paint a vineyard. As I painted, I kept smelling something herbal. Something pungent and unfamiliar in that context, like sage or fennel. I looked down and realized I was standing in a large swath of wild oregano.
- I connected with people from all over the world. We talked via hand signals, a mix of English/French/other languages, and scribbles in my sketchbook.
- France has the best baguettes ever. Also, where else can you choose from 365 plus kinds of fromage(cheese) for your plein air painting déjeuner à midi/picnic? Next time I plan to paint my lunch before eating it.
There were only minor lowlights:
- Plein air painting can be capricious. The weather can change, insects can invade, and the pastel stick that I drop is always the same color as the ground on which it lands. Provence offers another twist: le mistral, high winds that can last several days. Our first days in St. Rémy-de-Provence were the last days of a mistral event. I had to paint anyway, as the Place Jules Pelissier wooed me with its massive plane trees and colorful buildings. I sat to paint, clutching the painting on my lap, rather than risk my easel blowing over or my painting whooshing down the rue.
- New subject matter is challenging. Architecture and beaches are uncommon models for me. Each region has its own lighting and color palette to learn. My experience in painting florals, trees, landscapes lends little to the geometry of buildings and the ebb and flow of waves. I had to find ways to render urban models and beach scenes in a quick, plein air fashion, while staying true to my painting style.
- Thirdly, we can’t fly with isopropyl alcohol (which I use for some underpainting). One must remember that the local marchés that sell that usually close two hours for lunch.
All in all, the pleasures of painting en plein air in the Provençal region of France far exceeded any hitches. I came home with 13 plein air pastel paintings, some of which will be the basis of studio pieces. Then, as always, I’ll recall the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and beauty of that extraordinary place. I’m already planning for my next chance to be in France.
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